Sullivan County Historical Society History Preserver Award 2005
The History Preserver Award for 2005 is presented to Wilmer Sipple who is both the Town of Rockland Historian and Director of the Roscoe O&W Railway Museum. In both these roles he has labored for over twenty years to preserve the memorabilia and memories of the New York Ontario and Western Railway. In this endeavor he has shown great perseverance in the face of many disappointments, but as a result of his efforts and of those who shared his dream, Roscoe today can boast a museum complex composed of a Train Order Signal, a caboose, a museum building and a trout car expected to arrive in 2006.
The story of how this all came about is lengthy and complex, but it is best to begin in the years following the Civil War. At that time transportation in many parts of the country was still limited to slow moving canals and to roads which were often paralyzed by snow and mud. The result was a demand in these areas for the construction of new railroads to facilitate business and agriculture. This need for a railroad was particularly keen in the area in New York State between the New York Central which crossed the northern part of the State and the Erie whose tracks ran across the southern part. This area included a portion of the Catskills, the hills along the Chenango River and the farmland around the Finger Lakes.
In 1865 delegates from the counties in this area met in Delhi to discuss building a railroad line from Oswego on Lake Ontario to Jersey City on the Hudson. D. C. Littlejohn, a speaker of the Assembly, was present and he was appointed to draw up the articles of incorporation for this new line which was to be called the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad. Littlejohn also used his political position to secure passage of a law which permitted municipalities to issue bonds for the construction of the railroad. This new law made possible the financing and constructing of the new line.
There were, of course, bitter arguments about the exact route, but construction began in Norwich that year. On July 9, 1873, some five years later, Elisha Wheeler, a former vice-president of the new railroad, drove in the last spike near Westfield Flats (present day Roscoe) to signal the completion of the line. The day was festive. There were five locomotives with their whistles, booming cannon, and hundreds of cheering spectators to celebrate the occasion and the next day the celebration continued when the first train ran from Oswego to Jersey City.
Alas, this optimistic mood did not last. The country was in the grips of the Panic of 1873 and the sounds of celebration were still reverberating when the railroad went into bankruptcy later that year. However, in a few years prosperity returned and on November 14, 1879 a new group of investors, many of them English, purchased the property for $4,600,000 and renamed it the New York Ontario and Western Railway. The name was chosen deliberately. The words Ontario and Western were used to indicate the investors' goal of increasing trade from Oswego across Lake Ontario to Canada and to the west with Buffalo. Railway was an English term chosen out of respect for the investors.
For almost eight decades the railroad was an important part of county life. There was lumber to be transported, dairy products from the farms along its passage to be taken to market and blue stone from quarries and products from the tanneries and acid factories while they lasted to be used in an expanding economy. Unfortunately, the choice of a route for the O&W had not been a wise one, as the railroad had bypassed cities like Syracuse and had been built through areas of small population. Therefore, it was imperative for the O&W to develop new markets. One of these involved increasing the number of trout to attract more fishermen to the area. The Beaverkill and Willowemoc already had a reputation among trout fishermen and the railroad began stocking the rivers with additional trout to make the rivers even more attractive. In fact, special trout cars were built to make this distribution of young trout easier. Next the railroad increased its business by printing an annual book entitled Summer Homes which listed all the hotels in the area where weary city-dwellers could find relief during the summer months. The most important addition to the railroad was the decision to build a line from Cadosia to Scranton and to haul anthracite coal to the New York City market. Finally, the railroad had a line which could make a profit.
Nothing seems permanent in this world and after decades in which it seemed to be finding a comfortable niche in the nation's transportation system, the O&W gradually saw its traditional markets dry up. Oil replaced coal for home heating; the automobile with its flexibility provided more convenient transportation than trains with their fixed schedules and routes; and after the Second World War the traditional summer visitors who had for years been satisfied with the relatively simple arrangements of the Catskills now were seeking new and more exciting places for their summer vacations. The last edition of Summer Homes was published in 1947; the last regularly scheduled passenger train made its passage in 1953; and the last train made the final run in 1957. Various plans had been proposed to save the railroad, but by July of 1957 the 544 miles of railroad were being auctioned off for ten million dollars.
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William Helmer, author of "O&W," concludes his history with this sentimental reflection: "Ravaged by the scrap dealers, the weed-covered old right-of-way is an ugly scar on the land. May it ever remind us of the days of glory when smoke plumes rose over rattling coaches, when iron men piloted panting steamers over the mountains, when the railroad depot was the business center of town, when the lined face of an engineer could bring joy into the life of a small child, when the far-off whistle made dreamers of us all."
Certainly, one person who was made a dreamer by the "far-off whistle" is the man we are honoring today.
Wilmer Sipple was born August 27, 1924 into a family with strong roots in the county. His great-grandfather, Henry Sipple, had left Germany in the middle of the 19th century to come to Obernburg in Sullivan County because the county's topography was described as similar to his home in Germany. Wilmer's father left the farm, became a pharmacist and moved his family to Roscoe where Wilmer attended the local schools. As a boy he was fascinated with railroads and his interest in building models was encouraged by adults and he was given a portion of the basement where he constructed an O Gauge railroad layout which still survives. Graduating from High School in 1942, he attended Norwich University, a military college, where he began an engineering program. By 1943 he was in the regular army where somewhat illogically his career included both service as a bugler and as a dental technician. After the war he attended St. Lawrence University where he majored in Business Administration. In 1950 he married Ethel Switzer and they had two daughters. Ethel, an artist who taught in the Roscoe Schools, later shared his interest in the O&W and has made many important contributions to the success of the Museum, including service as president of the Association.
At the time that the Russians were putting Sputnik into space, Wilmer realized he had a strong interest in science and became a science teacher in Roscoe from 1957 until 1964 and then continued as a science teacher in Liberty from 1964 to 1982 when he retired.
Wilmer's interest in the O&W Railway began to take shape in 1983, a year after his retirement. On June 25 the Roscoe Train Order Signal which had been preserved after the railroad had been broken up was brought to the Town of Roscoe and dedicated in its present location. The bill of sale was presented to Town Supervisor Leon Siegel by Ray Wood, O&W Society President, who spoke on the importance of the railroad to the Roscoe area. Wilmer recalls talking to Ray afterwards and saying, "What we really need now is a caboose." Thus, began the idea of a Roscoe railway museum.
That summer Wilmer read how Ulster County had acquired a caboose from Conrail. He then contacted the Conrail Purchasing Agent in Philadelphia and soon received invitations to bid. His first bid was too low, but in March 1984 he was successful in bidding on two Erie cabooses which were similar to the O&W 8300 series. One went to Livingston Manor and the other was designated for Roscoe. Leon Siegel was helpful in obtaining the old Roscoe station site for the caboose and after sufficient private contributions had been made Conrail was paid off and the caboose was routed to Hancock and then brought by low-bed to Roscoe where the tracks for the car had already been laid. The caboose was finally opened on July 8, 1984.
When news of the caboose became widespread, people began contributing railroad memorabilia from their homes. Since Middletown did not have a Museum, even artifacts from Orange County made their way to Roscoe. Clearly, the Society was outgrowing the caboose and the next step was acquiring a larger building and this involved the purchase and developement of the present museum. The building was purchased in 1987. Much of the effort in those early years was spent in applying for grants and improving museum displays. Grants from New York State and the O'Connor Foundation were particularly helpful. As part of the arrangement with the town, a portion of the new building was to be used for the history of the Town of Rockland, so today the Museum focuses on both the railroad and the effect it had on the growth of the Rockland area.
At the same time that the museum building was being acquired, Wilmer and his friends who shared his enthusiasm for the O&W also began thinking of acquiring a trout car: one of the regular cars designed to bring young fish to stock the rivers along the railroad's path. His first grant request was rejected, but in 1993 he learned that the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey had a coach. The first car they examined was unsatisfactory, but they were able to purchase a Lackawanna coach in good condition from the New Jersey Society for $5,000 and the car was set aside for the Museum in Little Ferry. There then ensued over a decade of frustrations. The car was 86 feet long and there was difficulty in finding a location which the townsfolk would approve. Also, there was the problem of transporting such a large object along surrounding roads. However, Wilmer is confident that next year the Trout Car will have moved from its present location in Greenwood Lake and become the newest addition to the Museum complex.
The story of the Roscoe O&W Railway Museum is an inspiration for all persons interested in preserving our past. There are always financial problems; public opinion sometimes is unsympathetic; there are never enough volunteers and there are engineering problems in dealing with such heavy objects; but Wilmer, Ethel and colleagues have persevered. Any young person born today who in his imagination hears the "far-off whistle" will now have a wealth of maps, paintings, photographs and artifacts of all sizes and shapes to help him recreate in his mind's eye that special ear, the World of Steam.